Power Ranking the 10 Greatest College Football QBs of All Time
What makes for a great college quarterback?
Is it based on awards won? Titles claimed? Victories achieved? Statistics compiled? Yes, all of those things and so much more.
We've just completed our fifth straight season in which a quarterback has won the Heisman Trophy, the award given to college football's top player. Three of those passers played for (or won) a national title that same season and along the way won a slew of games and put up huge numbers.
But which one is the best of the best? Not just of the last five years, but in college history?
We've come up with our list of the 10 best ever, ranked by their overall performance and impact on the game. Click through to see our ranking criteria as well as who made the cut.
How the Rankings Were Tabulated
There's a wealth of data to cull through in order to determine who is the best college quarterback in the sport's history, but which numbers mean more than others?
For this ranking, we focused on the following statistics:
- Team win percentage (From seasons when the quarterback was the primary starter or played at least half of the offensive snaps)
- Career passer rating
- Touchdowns generated per season (All TDs each player threw, ran for or caught during years they were the primary starter)
- Total offense per game (All passing yards and yards from scrimmage gained during years they were the primary starter)
- Career interception percentage
To qualify for this ranking, a quarterback had to meet a certain minimum threshold in at least four of those categories or in three of them if they were a Heisman Trophy winner. The minimums were .700 team win percentage, 150.0 passer rating, 25 touchdowns per season, 250 yards per game of total offense and less than a 4 percent interception rate.
This left us with 25 eligible quarterbacks.
Players were then ranked from best to worst in each category, with the top spot getting 25 points and each subsequent spot earning one less, all the way down to one.
Bonus points were awarded for winning the Heisman (worth 10 points) and/or placing in the top five in a given year (worth 1-4 points) and for each year they were the primary starter. A four-year starter got 12 points, nine points were given to three-year starters, etc.
After all the points were tabulated, the passers were ranked from most points to least. If there was a tie, the player with more Heisman bonus points was ranked higher.
By using this formula, we attempted to balance out big numbers, being part of great teams and career longevity.
After identifying the 25 best candidates for this ranking, the scoring system described on the previous slide did the rest of the work. Sixteen finalists were Heisman Trophy winners, but only five of those made the top 10.
Here's who missed the cut:
- 11. Jameis Winston, Florida State
- 12. Case Keenum, Houston
- 13. Robert Griffin III, Baylor
- 14. Andre Ware, Houston
- 15. Jason White, Oklahoma
- 16. Danny Wuerffel, Florida
- 17. Ty Detmer, BYU
- 18. Troy Smith, Ohio State
- 19. Andrew Luck, Stanford
- 20. Colt McCoy, Texas
- 21. Chris Weinke, Florida State
- 22. Gino Torretta, Miami (Florida)
- 23. Charlie Ward, Florida State
- 24. Landry Jones, Oklahoma
- 25. Vince Young, Texas
10. Colt Brennan, Hawaii
Total score: 90
Win percentage: .718 (T-23rd)
Quarterback rating: 167.6 (6th)
Touchdowns per season: 48.7 (T-2nd)
Total offense per game: 387.9 yards (2nd)
Interception percentage: .0265 (18th)
Bonus points: 12 (3rd in Heisman; three-year starter)
Colt Brennan went to Hawaii to find salvation and redemption and ended up putting together one of the most prolific careers in college passing history.
Booted from Colorado in 2004 as a freshman, following a burglary and criminal trespass conviction, Brennan spent a year in junior college and then went to play for the Rainbows. June Jones has helped turn around that listless program, and it gave Brennan a chance to operate in a pass-heavy system.
In his three years at the helm, Brennan threw for more than 14,000 yards and 131 touchdowns, and as a junior in 2006 he set the FBS record for TD passes in a season with 58. As a senior, he paced Hawaii to a perfect regular season, earning it a BCS bid to play Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
Despite throwing it 1,584 times in his carer, Brennan only tossed 42 interceptions and completed an FBS-record 70.4 percent of his passes.
9. Matt Leinart, USC
Total score: 90
Win percentage: .949 (5th)
Quarterback rating: 159.5 (14th)
Touchdowns per season: 36.3 (13th)
Total offense per game: 273.2 yards (22nd)
Interception percentage: .0185 (8th)
Bonus points: 22 (Heisman winner, 3rd in additional year; three-year starter)
Matt Leinart loved playing quarterback in college so much he decided to stick around as long as possible. It probably explains why he was so anxious to return in that recent DISH Network commercial.
Despite leading USC to an unbeaten season and a national title in 2004, while also winning the Heisman Trophy, Leinart opted to return for his senior year. He was almost completely done with school by then, so in that final season his only class was one in ballroom dancing, which he took in between Saturdays that he led the Trojans to another championship game.
"There's something special going on here that I didn't want to give it up," Leinart said after deciding to forgo the NFL draft for one last college try, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN).
Though USC couldn't win a second straight title—falling to Vince Young and Texas in one of the great championship games ever—Leinart did manage to put up numbers that were just as good as the season before. However, he finished third in Heisman voting that year, behind Young and teammate Reggie Bush.
8. Graham Harrell, Texas Tech
Total score: 90.5
Win percentage: .718 (T-23rd)
Quarterback rating: 154.3 (18th)
Touchdowns per season: 48.7 (T-2nd)
Total offense per game: 389.2 yards (1st)
Interception percentage: .0169 (T-5th)
Bonus points: 11 (4th in Heisman; three-year starter)
During Mike Leach's tenure at Texas Tech, it seemed like the Red Raiders' quarterback led the nation in passing every season. Actually, it was only in five of Leach's 10 years, and only Graham Harrell was the country's top passer more than once.
After finishing third as a sophomore in 2006, Harrell led FBS the next two seasons by throwing for 5,705 and 5,111 yards, respectively. He also tossed 93 touchdowns in those two years and finished his career with 134 TD passes.
Harrell's three years as starter all are among the 27 most prolific in FBS history, which enabled him to finish fourth on the career passing list with 15,793 yards.
7. Kellen Moore, Boise State
Total score: 95.5
Win percentage: .943 (6th)
Quarterback rating: 169.0 (5th)
Touchdowns per season: 36.5 (12th)
Total offense per game: 274.3 yards (20th)
Interception percentage: .0169 (T-5th)
Bonus points: 14 (4th in Heisman; four-year starter)
Coach Chris Petersen was the pilot of Boise State's from upstart mid-major to legitimate power, and quarterback Kellen Moore was his best first mate.
During Moore's four years starting for the Broncos he won 50 of 53 games, making him the winningest passer in FBS history. He finished with 142 career touchdown passes, second only to the 155 that Case Keenum had at Houston (who accomplished that over parts of five seasons, because of injury), while he threw for more than 14,600 yards and completed 69.8 percent of his throws.
"Kellen Moore has been one fun guy to watch," Ben Kercheval wrote for NBC Sports in December 2011, after Moore ended his career with a 56-24 win over Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl. "There are few quarterbacks at the college level who grasp the game and the position like Moore does. Whether it’s his pocket presence, accuracy or general football I.Q., Moore makes it look effortless."
Moore's three losses were by a combined five points.
6. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
Total score: 96.5
Win percentage: .769 (19th)
Quarterback rating: 164.1 (8th)
Touchdowns per season: 46.5 (T-4th)
Total offense per game: 384.2 yards (3rd)
Interception percentage: .0255 (16th)
Bonus points: 17 (Heisman winner, 5th in additional year; two-year starter)
If we were ranking quarterbacks by how exciting they were to watch while in college, Johnny Manziel would have won in a landslide. Instead, Johnny Football's mercurial two seasons at Texas A&M rank him sixth-best overall, and his numbers show how wild a ride it was in 2012-13.
Manziel's mobility enabled him to use his legs as much as his arm to generate yardage and score touchdowns, finishing in the top five in both categories. He was also quite efficient with the ball, despite having one of the higher interception rates on our list.
One thing that really held Manziel back was his team, which despite his yeoman-like efforts lost six games in his two seasons. A shoddy defense had much to do with that, as well as A&M not being ready for SEC football on the defensive end.
5. Bryce Petty, Baylor
Total score: 99
Win percentage: .846 (15th)
Quarterback rating: 166.0 (7th)
Touchdowns per season: 40.5 (9th)
Total offense per game: 334.6 yards (5th)
Interception percentage: .0118 (1st)
Bonus points: 6 (two-year starter)
Go ahead and call Baylor's recent success at the quarterback position a product of the system, and you'd be partially right. But that would be taking away from the great performance that Bryce Petty had the past two seasons, which have been the two most successful in program history.
While Robert Griffin III is credited with helping to bring the Bears from the depths of FBS into the spotlight, it was Petty in 2013 and 2014 who made them a mainstay near the top. Baylor had never won even a piece of the Big 12 title since joining the conference in the mid-1990s, but in his two seasons it won the 2013 crown outright and shared it with TCU this past fall.
Baylor's 22 wins under Petty were the most ever in a two-year span, and while this was a product of a pass-heavy system it wasn't like Petty was just chucking it down field and hoping to get lucky. His 10 interceptions in 845 career attempts was tops in our ranking, and he finished in the top nine in three other categories.
4. Sam Bradford, Oklahoma
Total score: 101.5
Win percentage: .821 (16th)
Quarterback rating: 175.6 (2nd)
Touchdowns per season: 46.5 (T-4th)
Total offense per game: 281.9 yards (15th)
Interception percentage: .018 (7th)
Bonus points: 16 (Heisman winner; two-year starter)
If not for a injury-marred end to his time with Oklahoma, Sam Bradford could have ended up higher on this list. But even though his final season only lasted three games, before a shoulder injury knocked him out and required surgery, he had still put together the most efficient career in FBS history.
Bradford's 175.6 passer rating is the best ever for a quarterback who attempted at least 325 passes in his career. He actually threw it more than 600 times, amassing more than 8,400 passing yards and throwing 88 touchdowns, including 50 in 2008 en route to winning the Heisman trophy in a narrow victory over Texas' Colt McCoy and reigning Heisman winner Tim Tebow of Florida.
A likely No. 1 pick after the 2008 season, Bradford's choice to return to school was met with a mix of skepticism but also admiration for choosing to play another year and help the Sooners try to win a title. Oklahoma ended up going 8-5 that year, however, with Bradford going 2-1 before making way for the prolific career of Landry Jones.
3. Tim Tebow, Florida
Total score: 106
Win percentage: .854 (13th)
Quarterback rating: 170.8 (4th)
Touchdowns per season: 44.0 (7th)
Total offense per game: 278.1 yards (19th)
Interception percentage: .0161 (4th)
Bonus points: 23 (Heisman winner, 2nd in additional year; three-year starter)
If not for Tim Tebow, a number of quarterbacks on this top-10 list might not have finished so high. But his transformation of the position into one that can be both a passer and a runner paved the way for many of the stars who have come since Tebow played at Florida from 2006-09.
A change-of-pace sub during his freshman year, Tebow ran for more than he threw as he worked in tandem with Chris Leak to help the Gators win their first national title since 1996. He took over the starting job in 2007, and a year later piloted Florida to its second championship in three seasons.
Tebow even stuck around for his senior year, a rarity among star quarterbacks, and that final year was as good as the other two. All told, Tebow threw for more than 9,000 yards and ran for nearly 3,000, accounting for 145 career touchdowns that included 57 on the ground.
A top-five finish in three straight Heisman races, ironically Tebow won the award in the year (2007) that Florida had its worst record during his career. The Gators were 9-4 that season, then went 13-1 the next two.
2. Cam Newton, Auburn
Total score: 118
Win percentage: 1.000 (1st)
Quarterback rating: 178.2 (1st)
Touchdowns per season: 51 (1st)
Total offense per game: 312.1 yards (9th)
Interception percentage: .024 (13th)
Bonus points: 13 (Heisman winner; one-year starter)
When Ohio State's Cardale Jones went on his magical three-game run through the Big Ten championship, the semifinals and the national title game and then flirted with turning pro despite those being his only starts, it got us thinking about if we'd ever seen such an amazing-but-brief career in college football history among quarterbacks.
We had, when Cam Newton made his one-season blitz through the game in 2010.
A former Florida Gator, who had to leave the school in 2008 after competing in six games over two seasons (but with minimal results to show for it), Newton attended junior college for a year and then ended up at Auburn. In that single year, he never lost, putting up 4,369 yards of total offense and 51 touchdowns on his way to winning the Heisman.
The Tigers won the national title that season, edging Oregon is a classic championship bout. Newton then immediately said goodbye to the college game, turning pro as a redshirt junior and going first in the 2011 NFL draft.
What would have come of Newton had he stuck around? Could he have improved on his already stellar numbers? We'll never know.
1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Total score: 119
Win percentage: .878 (12th)
Quarterback rating: 171.8 (3rd)
Touchdowns per season: 45.3 (6th)
Total offense per game: 318.5 yards (7th)
Interception percentage: .012 (2nd)
Bonus points: 19 (Heisman winner; three-year starter)
In the end, it came down to time. Had Cam Newton played more than one full season in college—and been able to match his stellar numbers from 2010—he'd have probably finished on top.
Instead, our pick for the greatest quarterback in college football history is one that just wrapped up his amateur career with a Heisman-winning season, a trip to the national championship and some of the best numbers you'll ever see. Though he wasn't able to help Oregon bring home its first title earlier this month, that didn't take away from his illustrious career that officially ended when he declared early for the NFL draft after his junior year.
"Even without a final season in the books, he had one of the most decorated college careers for a quarterback," wrote Chantel Jennings of ESPN.com. "Mariota threw for a touchdown in each of 41 starts. He was the first player in Pac-12 history to account for 5,000 yards of offense in a single season (5,224). And his 58 touchdowns to just seven turnovers made him the first FBS player to have a plus-50 turnover margin."
Mariota only threw 14 interceptions in 1,167 career pass attempts, and this past season he was picked off only four times. His Ducks won 36 games with him in charge, and his ability to run and throw with equal effectiveness made him nearly unstoppable.
It also made him the best ever.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.